Alisak Sanavongsay is a classic example of quiet leadership in the Lao community. Soft-spoken and good-natured, he works tirelessly to build a revitalized Lao tradition, volunteering with a wide range of events and organizations from the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project, the Lao Artists Festival of Elgin, the National Lao American Writers Summit, and the Center for Lao Studies, just to name a few. He’s also become known for his role in shooting and editing the popular “Cooking with Nana” show on YouTube.
Currently a programmer at the University of California-Merced, Alisak traces his roots to Savannakhet, Laos, initially resettling in Tennessee and Illinois before moving to California with his family. We had a chance to discuss his journey with him:
Can you tell us a little about yourself? What’s a part of your family’s story in coming to America that lingers with you the most, especially as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Lao Diaspora?
I was born in a village called Bane Thasano, in Savannakhet, Laos. I’m the oldest of three children.
When I was only three years old, my mom led me across the Mekong River to Thailand, while she was pregnant with my younger brother, after my dad was taken away to one of the Communist re-education camps.
My mom’s side of the family lived in Mukdahan, in the Isaan region of Thailand, so we went to stay there for awhile. After my dad escaped from the re-education camp, we moved to the refugee camp in Ubon, Thailand.
We stayed at the refugee camp until 1979. At first, we received news that we had a sponsor in France. We were getting ready to go to France, but we later received news that we also had a sponsor in America.
My parents chose to come to America. We were sponsored by First Presbyterian Church of Kingsport, TN. We lived there for about nine months.
Some of our relatives had settled in Elgin, IL, so my parents decided to move us there. I stayed in Elgin for about thirty years before moving to California with my wife and three kids.
I am currently working at the University of California, Merced, as a programmer for the library.
You have a long history of involvement with many different Lao community projects across the country. Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement with the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project?
When I joined SJD in 1995, there were about 7 members. Our main means of communication was email. At first, the members just Cc’ed each other. Then Houmphan Thongvilu at Monash University in Australia set up a mailing list for us.
I can’t recall exactly why, but I ended up taking charge of the mailing list. At first, I set up a forwarding address on my university account. I manually added members to the forwarding list. After awhile, the university shut down the address.
I moved the mailing list to several different free services until I got a job at a web hosting company, where I set up a majordomo mailing list for the group. Eventually, I moved the mailing list to a server I set up in my home.
I also started hosting websites for other people’s projects from my home server. I hosted a website for the University of Minnesota’s Lao Student Association for several years. The Laotian American National Alliance also spent some time in my home.
So, back to SJD. You could say that my involvement was heavy on the technology side. Because we were all spread around the world, I believe that vitality of SJD really depended on the communication platforms that I was able to piece together.
After I was blessed with marriage and children, I didn’t have as much time to tend to the technology needs of SJD. Other members also received the same blessings around the same time, and the project started to become stagnant after 2001.
In the past few years, I have been trying to bring back bits and pieces of SJD. I still have some archived files that I haven’t shared, yet. There are a few writings that I post at http://www.SatJaDham.org.
I’m hoping to find some time to rebuild the website with some more of SatJaDham’s history.
Do you prefer tea or coffee?
When given a choice between coffee or tea at the same time, I would choose tea. However, when I don’t have to choose between the two, I find myself drawn to coffee.
What’s one of your favorite Lao folktales?
The folktales that I remember the most are the ones about Xieng Mieng.
What’s a skill you picked up which is unexpectedly useful in your career?
I think one of the most useful skills to have for any career is web searching (ok, googling). Being the only programmer at our library, I use many different programming languages. I don’t try to remember everything about every language because I’m confident I can always find what I need on the Internet.
What keeps you motivated as a community builder? What are some of the things you look for in good community leadership?
When I see people, especially young children, enjoying and exploring our Lao culture, it makes me really happy. I enjoy using my technical skills to help anyone who is promoting Lao culture.
I think a good community leader is one who shares the credit and the blame with those being led. He or she should guide others so that they may also become good leaders.
What’s something you might change about our understanding of our
culture? What’s a value you’d preserve?
One thing I wish I could change about our Lao culture is that parents don’t really teach their kids to question things. For example, when Lao parents take their kids to the temple, they just tell the kids to do what they do, but don’t really encourage the kids to ask why. When asked, the answer is usually, “Because I said so.”
I’d like to preserve the value of respect for our elders, but some elders abuse the respect. I see a lot of the younger generation who want to help the community but turn away because resistance from elders.
What’s your favorite Lao food dish?
I eat a lot of spicy sour salads (tum som), and I really enjoy them. One Lao dish that I love, but don’t get to eat often is ‘gang khiilek’ (bitter cassia leaves stew).
Education and technology have been big parts of your life. What’s advice you’d give to younger Lao just starting out?
When I was in fifth grade, I was one of three students chosen from my school to attend a Saturday morning program to learn computer programming. I think that was one of the most important opportunities that came knocking.
I was planning to become a cancer researcher when I went to college. After attending a Saturday morning physics program at Fermi National Laboratories during my sophomore year in high school, I became fascinated with the idea of shooting protons at cancer cells to kill them.
The only university I applied to was Vanderbilt University. After I got accepted, I didn’t apply anywhere else.
It turned out that university education wasn’t for me. Everything seemed to be going more slowly than I had hoped. So, I skipped all the science classes I registered for and went learning on my own.
I dropped into a lot of Asian studies and philosophy classes that I didn’t register for. I didn’t earn a degree from Vanderbilt because I didn’t go through all the formal classes and procedures, but I felt I received the education I needed on my own terms.
I always look for learning opportunities in everything and from everyone.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently helping organize a symposium at UC Merced, titled ‘Southeast Asian American Legacies: 40 Years After the End of the Vietnam War,’ which includes panel discussions in the morning and live performances by Lao and Hmong artists in the evening.
I’m also working with the Center for Lao Studies on a traveling exhibit called “Between Two Worlds: Untold Stories of Refugees from Laos.” [http://laostudies.org/b2w]. I’m primarily the technology director on this project.
I’m also hoping to launch some interactive stuff for “Cooking with Nana,” but I have too many ideas and too little time.
In the more distant future, I want to get some land and plant tropical plants far outside the tropics.
Little Laos on the Prairie